Last week I had the great pleasure of interviewing production designer Leslie Dilley on the set of kids’ TV show Teacup Travels. Les designed James Cameron’s THE ABYSS, and as art director worked on Richard Lester’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS/THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, as well as STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, ALIEN, SUPERMAN… not to mention his being one of the whistlers in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, which is the one that made my jaw drop.
The interview was fun, but the conversation afterwards was even better — of course, I wasn’t recording that. But Les relaxed and told a couple of stories of mishaps, both ironically centered around the craft speciality that was his entrée into the film business — plastering. And both involving Gene Hackman movies.
On LUCKY LADY (Stanley Donen, 1975), Les was working with his mentor Norman Reynolds, and had the job of preparing sheeted several corpses which had to be flung off the side of a boat. I’m not sure if this scene made it into the movie, as I gather three different endings were shot. Les prepared nine or ten chickenwire frames and plastered them over to make good, realistically heavy corpses. But he was rather worried that the Mexican extras who had to commit these remains to the sea might not by hefty enough to actually get them over the side — they were all quite little fellows.
Donen called action and Les hid below-decks, listening nervously. Splash. Splash. He began to relax — evidently the diminutive Hispanic seamen were managing their task with aplomb. Splash. Splash. Then — disaster — sudden hilarity. Generally the very effect you want to avoid in a funeral at sea.
Rushing on deck, Les learned the cause of the laughter — the plaster corpses were bobbing to the surface, one after the other. Despite being extremely heavy, they all contained enough air to be buoyant, something Les had never learned at school.
The laws of physics will trip the filmmaker up every time. Les ended up skipping RETURN OF THE JEDI to do EUREKA, since he was very interested in working with Nic Roeg. For this movie, he built a tree that Gene Hackman has to sit under in the Klondyke. The tree was constructed at a studio in Vancouver and shipped up north to the snowy climes for assembly on location. All the branches slotted into the trunk perfectly, according to Les’s prepared diagram, and Les secured them with plaster and scrim, working in progressively colder sub-zero temperatures as the evening wore on. They were absolutely solid when he left.
But then he got a call. Gene Hackman had been filmed at his little prospector’s campfire under the tree, and had narrowly escaped being brained by a falling plaster branch.
What had happened was that as the temperature got insanely low, the plaster had stopped bonding, since the water content of it would freeze before the plaster was dry. This ice would have still done the job and held the branches in place, probably securely enough for people to climb the tree if they’d wanted, except that the heat from Hackman’s fire had risen up the tree and started them thawing.
The lesson: people on movies are always doing strange things under pressure of time, such as building plaster trees in arctic conditions, and this is exactly how accidents happen… and it’s the things you know perfectly well how to do that will suddenly turn treacherous in these circumstances.